Experiencing the Nuances of the Dominican Republic Culture First-Hand

Posted by on March 19, 2013

Guest blog post by Erin O’Hern, Compliance Attorney, PolicyWorks LLC

In January, I had the opportunity to go to the Dominican Republic and participate in the International Credit Union Leadership Program with 11 other credit union professionals from across the U.S. It was an amazing experience that really opened my eyes to the unique culture that drives the Dominican Republic.

Because many incorrectly assume all Hispanic people are similar, I wanted to share some of the insights I gained, into the Dominican culture specifically, during my trip.

Family
In the Dominican Republic, the definition of family is much broader than in the U.S. I may call my co-workers good friends, but the credit union employees at COOPBUENO call each other family — and they mean it. For example, the 8-year-old daughter of my host family could name each employee of the credit union, and even some of their relatives. For each person, she could also tell me funny stories about her personal experiences with them. When I was eight, I knew some of my dad’s co-workers (I even had nicknames for a few… “The One with the Beard” for example), but could never have told you each co-worker’s life story.

Taking the time to socialize is very important in the Dominican Republic. Each morning, and before the employees leave in the evening, they stop at their co-workers’ desks to shake hands and ask a few questions about how things were at home or how the day was going. I worry I may have offended several employees at the credit union the first few days when I only said, “Hello, how are you?” and waved from across the lobby.

And, the phrase “Mi casa es su casa” (My home is your home) is not an exaggeration in the Dominican Republic. It was not uncommon during my visit there for my host family and I to stop by a co-worker’s house to say hello and possibly share dinner. Then, of course, we visited the co-worker’s parent’s house, as well as the in-law’s house.

Housing
In the Dominican Republic, it is very unusual for the next generation to move out of their parent’s house before they are married. In fact, the universities do not have dormitories because students either live at home or with a relative while they are studying. After attending a university, many graduates will live with their parents while they are beginning their careers.

When I asked credit union employees about this, they all said it was a big part of their culture and a widely accepted practice. Although limited available housing and financial challenges do play a part in this custom, no one I talked with mentioned these as the main reason for remaining at home with their parents.

When I mentioned to my host parents in the U.S. that a large portion of college students live either in dormitories on campus or in nearby apartments, and that young, unmarried professionals often live by themselves or with roommates, they asked why someone would need to move out of their parent’s house before marriage? They also suggested that it is too easy for young people to get into trouble by leaving their parent’s house so soon.

Food
Food is very important in the Dominican culture. Although, they do have specific dishes to represent a specific celebration or special gathering, such as sancocho (a multi-meat, multi vegetable stew), it is unusual for them not to have rice and beans for lunch every day. In the U.S., it would be difficult for many to select just a few food choices that are part of our cultural identity. For example, people may associate apple pie (or if you live in Iowa, corn) as an all-American food. But, it is easy to find people in the U.S. who do not like to eat apple pie. Interestingly enough, I could not find one person in the Dominican Republic who did not eat rice and beans. In fact, many were shocked to learn that before visiting their country, I had not eaten beans in over a year.

I also observed that meal times are very different in the Dominican culture. Lunch is the largest meal in the Dominican Republic and can often last for several hours (depending on whether the person’s work hours allow it). And, meal times are another opportunity for families to spend time together. In fact, many people chose to eat at home as often as possible. For example, my host family’s children ate lunch in the home each day.

Another reason food is important in Dominican culture is because they take pride in preparing it for their families. In many cases, meals are not as easy to prepare as they are in the U.S. because not every family has modern appliances in their kitchens. Even refrigeration can be an issue with power fluctuations, and families living in campos or barrios may not have electricity at all.

The Dominican culture is a great example of hard working people that care deeply about their family, friends and neighbors. The spirit of the credit union movement compliments their community goals perfectly.

Service to Hispanic members is not only critical for the success of today’s U.S. credit union movement, it is vital for bringing more Hispanic Americans — a largely underserved group — into the financial mainstream. Yet the Hispanic segment has many nuances; Dominican just one among many. This is part of the reason Hispanic outreach is so challenging — but also so rewarding. While it is difficult to better understand your Hispanic members, the potential reward is great.

For 13 days in January 2013, 11 young credit union professionals were selected to participate in the International Credit Union Leadership Program, made possible by a grant from the U.S. State Department, World Council of Credit Unions and the support of the participants’ respective leagues and credit unions.

Each was placed in a different credit union or credit union association across the Dominican Republic. From Iowa, Traci Stiles, Business Development Manager at Des Moines Metro Credit Union in Des Moines, Iowa, was placed at the newest credit union in the Dominican Republic, CoopOriental; Erin O’Hern, Compliance Attorney at PolicyWorks, was placed with COOPBUENO; Anna Peña, Client Account Coordinator at Coopera, was placed at COOPACRENE.

 Highlights from their experience will be shared in a series of blog posts.

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